Generic Statements Require Little Evidence for Acceptance but Have Powerful Implications
Article first published online: 18 AUG 2010
Copyright © 2010 Cognitive Science Society, Inc.
Volume 34, Issue 8, pages 1452–1482, November 2010
How to Cite
Cimpian, A., Brandone, A. C. and Gelman, S. A. (2010), Generic Statements Require Little Evidence for Acceptance but Have Powerful Implications. Cognitive Science, 34: 1452–1482. doi: 10.1111/j.1551-6709.2010.01126.x
- Issue published online: 3 NOV 2010
- Article first published online: 18 AUG 2010
- Received 18 December 2009; received in revised form 18 April 2010; accepted 23 April 2010
- Generic language;
- Truth conditions;
- Prevalence implications;
Generic statements (e.g., “Birds lay eggs”) express generalizations about categories. In this paper, we hypothesized that there is a paradoxical asymmetry at the core of generic meaning, such that these sentences have extremely strong implications but require little evidence to be judged true. Four experiments confirmed the hypothesized asymmetry: Participants interpreted novel generics such as “Lorches have purple feathers” as referring to nearly all lorches, but they judged the same novel generics to be true given a wide range of prevalence levels (e.g., even when only 10% or 30% of lorches had purple feathers). A second hypothesis, also confirmed by the results, was that novel generic sentences about dangerous or distinctive properties would be more acceptable than generic sentences that were similar but did not have these connotations. In addition to clarifying important aspects of generics’ meaning, these findings are applicable to a range of real-world processes such as stereotyping and political discourse.